Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work Online

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Become Team
September 16, 2021

As the terminal degree in the field, a doctoral degree in social work appeals to social work professionals seeking to advance into more demanding research, teaching, and administrative careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the demand for social workers to rise by 16% between 2016 and 2026; this growth is largely driven by the nationwide expansion of healthcare and social services.

The increasing demand for social workers precipitates a need for social work doctoral degree holders to teach the next generation of practitioners. In addition to teaching, a professional with a Ph.D. in social work can find positions in research, administration, and policy analysis in the public and private sectors.

Students may pursue either a doctor of social work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in social work, depending on their interests. The DSW — known as an advanced practice doctorate — emphasizes administrative procedures and clinical applications. A Ph.D. program features some academic content that overlaps with a DSW track but focuses mainly on research and policy analysis.

What Can You Do With an Online Ph.D. in Social Work?

Earning a Ph.D. in social work online or through a traditional on-campus program requires a commitment to the helping professions. Ph.D. students acquire the necessary training for many rewarding careers in human services and social welfare, management, consulting, postsecondary teaching, and clinical practice.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Annual Median Salary: $56,145
Projected Growth Rate: 16%

Licensed clinical social workers provide direct services for clients, families, and caregivers. Their duties include diagnosis, assessment, interventions, and treatment. These licensed professionals need a master of social work (MSW) from a program approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), although doctorate holders can supervise other practitioners and oversee case management and referrals.

Postsecondary Teacher (Social Work)

Annual Median Salary: $64,370
Projected Growth Rate: 15%

Postsecondary social work educators teach courses at the community college, bachelor’s, and graduate levels. Their responsibilities vary by institution but generally include teaching and developing course content, advising students, conducting research, and serving on administrative committees. Most faculty at accredited colleges and universities need a Ph.D.

Social Service Consultant

Annual Median Salary: $49,132
Projected Growth Rate: N/A

These consultants work in a variety of human services settings to assist in the development of programs, policies, and procedures. They may also conduct evaluations and assessments and train staff in best practices to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations. Many social service and government agencies prefer to hire consultants with doctoral training and educational and assessment experience.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics / PayScale

The Top-Paying Industries for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Top-Paying Industries for Healthcare Social Workers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Traits of a Successful Social Worker

Professionals with a Ph.D. in social work possess a strong foundation in therapy and counseling principles and best practices; rigorous academic training in psychology, sociology, and other social sciences; and excellent communication skills. They must know how to provide appropriate client services, maintain case histories and other documentation, develop treatment plans, and conduct follow-ups.

Increasingly, social workers must also master technological skills, including the use of database and medical software as well as presentation, publishing, and word processing packages. Social workers in administrative positions need the ability to collaborate with counselors, physicians, and other caretakers. The most successful social workers also possess the following skills.

Social workers need broad diagnostic skills, including the ability to recognize problems and potential problems, identify conflict and crisis situations, and help clients address areas of concern.
Social workers deal with clients from socially and culturally diverse backgrounds. They need tolerance, empathy, and an awareness of the different ways that clients react to problems and challenges — both emotionally and behaviorally.
As a helping profession, social work requires professionals who hold a commitment to improving the lives of others, especially those who need support and services to lead more productive lives.

Salary by Experience Level

The career and salary outlook for licensed clinical social workers is positive. Practitioners who work with youth, the aging population, and individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues can look forward to the most dramatic rates of job growth. As the field expands, so does the need for social work educators, administrators, researchers, and policy analysts with advanced degrees. Although compensation varies by specialization and location, professionals with graduate degrees and work experience earn the highest salaries in the social work field.

Pay by Experience Level for Social Workers

Source: PayScale

Certifications and Licenses a Ph.D. in Social Work Prepares For

Steps to Earning a Ph.D. in Social Work Online

Each social work Ph.D. program offers a unique curriculum and professional focus. Online Ph.D. social work programs differ in terms of cost, graduation requirements, and course delivery formats. Students should thoroughly investigate each school’s program before submitting an application.

Find the Right Program for You

When searching for the best social work Ph.D. programs, make sure to choose accredited schools. Requirements for doctoral degrees in social work differ by school. Some programs offer fully online asynchronous courses, while others use a hybrid format with a combination of online and in-person requirements. Some distance learning programs also use a cohort model where students progress through the degree track at the same pace as a group of their peers.


Filling out applications can be time consuming, so make sure to begin the process approximately six months prior to the term when you plan to enroll. Give yourself enough time to gather transcripts, draft your personal statement, and request letters of recommendation. Additionally, take your GREs well ahead of time in case you need to retake the exam to improve your scores.

Capstone, Dissertation, or Thesis

Almost all social work Ph.D. programs require participants to complete a dissertation based on independent and original research. Students prepare a proposal after finishing coursework and qualifying exams. They research and write their dissertation under the guidance of a faculty adviser and committee. Before students officially receive a Ph.D. in social work, they must present their work in a public dissertation defense. A DSW often requires a research project related to clinical practice or policy.

Fellowship or Internship

Students earning a doctoral degree in social work may take advantage of experiential learning opportunities in teaching, research, and/or clinical settings. Some programs award fellowships that cover tuition, either partially or in full. Fellowships allow students to teach social work classes — usually at the undergraduate level — or help faculty with research projects. Additionally, paid and unpaid internships, carried out under the supervision of a licensed social worker and faculty adviser, enable students to acquire practical experience in clinical settings.

Curriculum for an Online Ph.D. in Social Work

  1. Research Methods in Social Work: This course, generally required of all doctoral students, provides training in the functions and processes of social work research and technological applications. Students learn about major research methodologies, knowledge-building processes for practice and policy analysis, and the importance of using multiple research models for the accumulation of scholarship within the profession.

  2. Approaches to Drug and Alcohol Abuse in Social Work: Social workers often enter positions offering therapy, counseling, and other services to individuals with substance abuse problems. In this course, future practitioners learn major assessment and treatment models, the history and pharmacology of alcohol and drugs, and the etiology of abuse and dependence. Course content emphasizes multidisciplinary approaches in diverse settings.

  3. Community Health and Urban Development: Ph.D. students interested in policy analysis must understand the social and economic determinants of community health in the context of urban development. Themes addressed in this course include human rights, health disparities, discrimination, social dislocation, and urban poverty as they impact urban policy. Students learn analytical and policy practice skills appropriate for community-based research in an urban environment.

  4. Family Violence, Neglect, and Abuse in Social Work Practice: Child and family social workers, school counselors, and marriage and family therapists benefit from specialized training in this area. Using an ecological approach, students learn how to recognize and treat evidence of violence, neglect, and abuse, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of children, women, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.

  5. Critical Social Work in a Multicultural Society: Whether engaged in research, policy analysis, education, or clinical practice, social workers need the cultural competencies to assist a variety of populations. This course examines the social constructions of race and ethnicity — in terms of their application to social work practice — while focusing on African-Americans, Latinos/as, Asian-Americans, and Native peoples.

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